by Luv Mehta
As of the time of this article’s publishing, it’s been a little over a month since the WHO declared COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic.
The world is suffering. Most daily wage labourers have lost any steady source of income they might have had, people living paycheck-to-paycheck are fearing layoffs at their place of employment, and people who are well-off are sequestered in their apartment complexes and keep fearing the news as more and more of their buildings keep being declared hotspots.
And as I write this article today, from the comfort of my room, I realise this article doesn’t have a lot of relevance in the zeitgeist of today. Is it changing things for the better? Not really. Is it commenting on the social stratification and how it has made humankind’s response to this pandemic fundamentally suffer? Again, no. There are independent news outlets doing the same thing right now, and I don’t have a tenth of their expertise on the matter.
With that said, maybe the pandemic has given us much more anxiety related to the things we do and the things we say. And maybe the time we’re spending in our homes makes us feel that every second we spend has to mean something, to add value to the world, to improve ourselves. And maybe we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves.
So here’s a bunch of paragraphs on how I’m watching a lot of YouTube and reading too much into them.
The last time I posted anything on this site was in November of last year. I had just completed a rewatch of Aap Ka Suroor with a couple of friends, and I was so moved by the experience that I decided to start a series of articles on Himesh Reshammiya’s filmography. I only ever got to write one article, but I like it a lot, and maybe you will too.
And then work pressure intensified, life went on, and I lost the drive to watch anything new.
So, an update – this site is basically a personal blog now. I used to write it with a bunch of college friends, and I met a lot of cool people through it, but life’s taken us far beyond, and most of us are either working or have gone for further studies.
And I’ve been watching/reading/listening to far fewer things than I did in my college days, so I often don’t have much to write about.
That being said, I do watch a lot of YouTube – mostly channels about movies, games, TV shows and food – and listen to a lot of podcasts - mostly about movies, games and TV shows.
And while the pandemic hasn’t somehow invigorated my movie appetite yet, I noticed something strange and interesting.
A couple of years ago, the film essayist Lindsay Ellis uploaded a video about the strange ways new media has changed the way we view and engage with creators.
“YouTubers,” she says, “are selling more than a service, like a bartender (expected to be perpetually cheerful in the presence of rowdy and drunk customers). The product that YouTubers, Twitch streamers, and other influencers sell, is almost exclusively affect.”
She goes on to mention how a lot of popular YouTube creators have a special charismatic persona for the cameras, where they’re especially (seemingly) honest about their lives, as well as the things that make them happy and sad, and that this often leads to burnout for the creators because of the intense amount of exposure and scrutiny they’re subjecting themselves to.
“A part of the platform of YouTube,” she says, “and what some would call influencer culture, is that it's important for creators that their audience think they know you and that your job depends on maintaining that sense of accessibility and authenticity.”
This gets especially interesting in the times of this global crisis, when every single person is scared for their lives, the lives of their loved ones, and the security they had built up for themselves throughout their lives. How do YouTubers, who have built up this sense of approachability by letting us all into their lives, deal with this fear?
If they do it publicly, do they say “I’m depressed” with a laugh and a quick cut? Apparently, in some cases, yes.
I was watching a video from SuperEyepatchWolf, a YouTuber who makes videos on video games, wrestling and anime. He was talking about the strange ways in which the Sonic fandom has progressed over the years, seemingly in response to the change in quality of the games over the years. Because I was a little late in watching it, I had to watch an edited version, where the creator came on screen in the middle of the video essay, and explained that he had to cut out part of the analysis because it referred to the NSFW portions of fandom creations, and YouTube had demonetized it.
“And don’t you all say anything about how I look,” he says, seemingly in need of a beard trim, “I’ve been stuck in the house for five weeks and I’m VERY depressed-”
And the video suddenly cuts to the rest of the essay.
It’s pretty normal for us to see people be extremely frank on social media (one pretty popular tweet talks about how introverted people go online and post “Anyway I’m DEPRESSED and HORNY”) but it’s another thing to see video creators willingly volunteer that information in their videos. This is nothing new, of course – we’ve seen too many vloggers bare their souls on camera – but what makes it so fascinating is that it’s a fear of mortality we’re all going through right now, and to see that reflected, either frankly or with reluctance, makes us feel less alone – while also making that fear seem much more real, somehow.
It’s one thing to have problems in your locality, and it’s quite another to watch people on a screen, whose lives have been far removed from yours, go through the same upheaval you’re going through.
One of my favourite comfort channels to watch is Bon Appétit. The food creation is great, yes, but the selling point of the videos are that all the people who feature in them are charismatic and unique personalities, all with their own quirks, their likes and dislikes, and their own approaches to their work. An article from The New Republic has this to say about their appeal - “In a world of Soylent-fueled productivity and meals scarfed down at desks, there’s some novel pleasure in watching people do something they like, with people they like, for as long as it takes... To watch Gourmet Makes or It’s Alive... feels a bit like hanging out with someone playing hooky from their ‘real’ job, even though it’s exactly the opposite.”
Which makes it all the weirder when we see the cast of Bon Appetit’s test kitchen videos outside, well, the test kitchen.
A lot of TV shows and YouTube channels – specifically the ones which usually rely either on a studio or outside locations - have pivoted to trying out new video formats from home. Right now, we’re seeing the Bon Appetit channel releasing a new batch of videos, where the cast introduces their global audience to their kitchen (many of which have to be clearly shuffled around to work on a camera) and show their favourite knives, their favourite coffees, and tells us everything they’ve been up to.
And even past their unique charisma and fun camera presence, there’s a clear unease in their eyes. They’re not used to filming videos in their homes, away from their cast members. Most of the fun cast-member banter is missing, and the group videos usually features them one-by-one, referring to their co-workers and what they would do in their place. Brad Leone actually starts off by mentioning the quarantine in the first of these videos, then immediately backtracks, saying “Can we say that? Can we say the Q-word?”
A particularly fun, yet sad and relatable, example of this is in the video where they all show how they make their favourite coffees. Cast members like Chris Morocco are predictably very precise about the temperature of the water and the weight of the beans, and cast members like Priya Krishna predictably ditch the whole concept and make beverages that they personally like (which is tea, in her case – never change, Priya Krishna). When we get to Sohla El-Waylly, we see her do the same thing – except she ditches the whole thing and makes a variation on a White Russian (a cocktail) with coffee.
It’s a lot of fun to watch, and Sohla is genuinely a charming and fun presence in every video she’s in – but she starts her section by offhandedly mentioning how much more she’s having to drink these days, since she’s stuck at home and not able to meet her friends at work.
And that’s pretty true for a huge portion of the world right now, and it’s especially sad. So many of us aren’t able to meet our parents, our friends, our loved ones – not to mention the people stuck far away from home, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. And a lot of us are engaging in various ways of coping, some healthy, many unhealthy.
The pandemic hasn’t just affected content from the YouTube sphere, of course – a lot of TV shows that depend on live studio tapings have had to shift their format as well. John Oliver, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert, among many others, have started filming their shows from home.
The effect is eerie, since their content is generally so dependent on audience reactions to their punchlines, and the lack of it makes it feel... empty? I don’t know how to describe it.
Let’s go on a slightly unrelated personal tangent.
I was talking with a few friends throughout the past few days, and discussing what we were doing with the free time we had. One of them went like this -
Luv Mehta: So, I’m not being able to watch a lot of movies,TV shows, or much of anything these days.
Two of these podcasts I listen to are by a YouTuber called Patrick H. Willems. The podcasts, The Infinity Podcast and Can’t Get Enough Of Keanu, have the hosts going on different tangents while talking about, respectively, comic book movies and Keanu Reeves’ filmography. On both of them, in recent episodes (recorded separately from the hosts’ houses, because they can’t meet up or go to any recording studio right now), Patrick talks about how he feels strange about how TV show hosts are taking over a format he’s generally had to make a space in.
This discussion went further when, in a recent video he released on his channel, he outright admitted that he felt more pressure to make videos despite being stuck at home, since all these popular TV personalities were transitioning to the same kind of videos he had made. “I'm sitting here like an idiot,” he narrates himself thinking in a skit, “while talk-show hosts and celebrities are becoming YouTubers, making low production value videos from home and putting them on the Internet.”
There’s an impression that he feels like he’s being replaced – which, again, so many of us can identify with. Of the ones working from home, we’re wondering if our employers will realize we don’t add as much to their company, and can be easily replaced. Of the ones having to go to an office to work properly, they’re fearing layoffs by their company because they can’t show the work to justify being paid right now. And creatives, who can either have any of the above or be freelancers, have had to worry about their work not being valued or asked for once this lockdown ends, and being replaced by other people whose creativity might be more in line with what people want.
This is a huge moment of upheaval.
It’s generally interesting to think of ways in which art can change during moments of great importance in the history of the world. We see a change in how movies depict violence and sexuality and class consciousness, for example, as we track the history of the place those movies come from, and we see how a lot of real-world factors influence these changes.
This past year, the Academy Awards (which, as Bong Joon-Ho rightly states, is a very local awards ceremony) awarded Best Picture to Parasite, a movie that is extremely in tune with class stratification and horizontal class warfare. Even though the director has explored many of these themes in his earlier movies before, it’s easy to see how, in the state of extreme inequality in the current world, a movie like Parasite resonates with so many people.
But art in new media is fundamentally different. As said earlier, there is great work put into demonstrating accessibility and relatability, so creators often have to be more honest about how they're feeling, so audiences can look at them and say, "Mood".
And in this time of isolation, where all we can do to stay connected is stay online, I wonder how art in new media will change.
I guess we’ll find out soon.